It was a big day here at Fool HQ, as we got hit with our first snow storm of the season in the Washington, D.C., area. Seventeen Fools were treated for minor lacerations and bruises during our annual snowball fight. But only one tooth was lost.

Bigger than that, however, was the return of long-time Fool writer Jeff Fischer, who, after a leave of absence to complete a book, rejoined the fray on with 5 Ideal Stock Prices. Welcome back, Jeff. We missed you.

And even bigger than that was the official pre-sale of our annual book of stock ideas, Stocks 2003. Formerly Industry Focus, our opus is even better than ever. Bill Mann explains the changes. The current market may make you want to give up on stocks altogether, but don't. There are still hundreds of top-quality companies out there to invest in. We'll help you find them.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

United Rejected, Dejected

United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) employees are surprised and angry today after the Air Transportation Stabilization Board rejected the company's plea for a $1.8 billion loan guarantee. Without it, United has said it will likely have to file for bankruptcy.

The ATSB's decision was surprising because the airline's unions and management had agreed to significant pay cuts in order to improve the company's financial picture. But the board said United's proposed business plan did "not position the company to meet the challenges of the current airline industry environment and to achieve long-term financial stability. Specifically, the plan is based on unreasonably optimistic revenue projections."

The board said it believes United would likely face another liquidity crisis in the next few years, even if it received the loan. The bottom line: The ATSB doesn't believe it (meaning the American taxpayers) would be repaid.

United says it will discuss the matter with all parties involved and consider whether to submit an improved proposal.

Should it be forced to file Chapter 11, the airline vows to keep flying throughout the reorganization. Current stockholders will likely see their shares become worthless, however. The stock opened at $1.28 this morning, down 59%, before trading was halted.

If you're a United traveler, should you worry about your frequent flier miles? Most experts think they're safe, according to the Associated Press. They would likely survive intact through any bankruptcy proceedings, and even if the airline goes out of business, competitors would probably honor 25% to 50% of the miles.

Quote of Note

"For the man sound in body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather, every sky has its beauty, and storms which whip the blood do but make it pulse more vigorously." -- George Gissing (1857-1903), English novelist

IBM Narrows Pension Gap

When planning for retirement, you assume your pension plan will be there for you. You do your company time, get your sendoff with the token timepiece, and then wait for your monthly pension checks to arrive. Right?

Well, for the tenured at IBM(NYSE: IBM), the golden years were starting to look pretty dim when the company announced it had a shortage in the funding of its pension plan. Cynics may have chuckled that the same pension earnings it used to prop up profits when the stock was soaring was creating a rift as the stock corrected. Big Blue has been taken to task over accounting tricks in the past. Why break from tradition?

But because real and unwittingly innocent retirees are involved here, it's nice to see that recent gains in IBM's stock has given the company the flexibility to fill what has narrowed to a $3 billion gap in its domestic pension plan.

IBM's position is not unique. Blue chips 3M(NYSE: MMM), Boeing(NYSE: BA), Ford(NYSE: F), and General Motors(NYSE: GM) have their own benefit plan shortcomings to reckon with.

IBM will make up the difference with a combination of cash and equity. The amount may seem beefy, but the company has generated just over $20 billion in free cash flow over the past three years. The bigger concern is that it was clinging to an ambitious 10% annualized growth rate for its stock in its growth assumptions -- a deluded premise that allowed it to post a healthier bottom line, since it hadn't contributed to its plan in seven years.

Let's hope IBM learns its lesson, or, at the very least, that Wall Street doesn't let the company forget it this time.

Discussion Board of the Day: IBM

Is Big Blue still a worthy blue chip? Is the pension plan shortage a petty or legitimate concern? All this and more -- in the IBM discussion board. Only on

Give Gifts With Past Lives

C'mon... stop being such a Goody Two-shoes. Everybody's doing it.

Well, maybe not everyone, but a survey reveals that nearly one in four of us upstanding, big-hearted Americans will resort to regifting this year. And, get this, the practice is more widespread (36%) among households with annual incomes in the $100,000 to $150,000 range, says the Money Management International survey reported by CBS Marketwatch.

If you're unfamiliar with regifting (go ahead and feign ignorance), it's the practice of passing along unwanted presents to someone else, all the while pretending you searched long and hard to find them. Chia pets, the Ronco Rotato, and, of course, the ubiquitous Christmas fruitcake are among items that find a second (and third and fourth) life under the tree.

Budget Liv ing magazine's anonymous celebrity columnist recently revealed her circle's dirty little secret -- many are serial regifters. "My friend 'Tricia,' a preeminent society hostess, revealed to me her 'Present Palace' -- a closet groaning with unwanted perfumes, sweaters, watches, scarves, umbrellas, and enough silver to service a small restaurant."

Some call it cheap. We call it Foolish. Given that the holidays are a budget-buster for so many (the average gift budget this year is more than $1,000!), we don't have a problem with the practice. Just make sure it's done tastefully and you give us something that we really, really like. The alternative -- credit card debt and shopper's resentment -- is hardly in the holiday spirit.

Go ahead and regift to shave a few bucks off the budget and find a good home for those 13 soaps on a rope you've accumulated since college. When you run out, consider becoming a philanthropist by giving to Foolanthropy. No wrapping paper necessary!

Shameless Plug: Christmas Credit Crunch

It's that time of year when you can make or break your credit. You don't have to buy that two-man submarine for your husband for Christmas -- though surely he would love it -- and pay for it for the rest of your lives. We've got your back in all personal credit matters. From a great card to how to protect your identity to how to size up your credit when you're looking for a loan, we've got it all in our Motley Fool Credit Center.

Quick Takes

It's hard to play Robin next to Batman. Advanced Micro Devices(NYSE: AMD) has been trying for years, resulting in spotty profits even when it released faster chips than steel-chested Intel(Nasdaq: INTC). AMD increased fourth-quarter sales guidance to about $700 million, well above expectations in the low $600 million range, and up 35% from third-quarter sales. But this No. 2 guy is still expected to lose money for the quarter and year. Batman -- that is, Intel -- will release year-end guidance today at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Investors in American Eagle Outfitters(Nasdaq: AEOS) are blaming Canada for slow sales that slammed the stock. That's patriotic, but misguided. The clothing retailer's November same-store sales fell a ripping 6.5%, while same-store sales in the Canadian division fell a monstrous 30%. However, this drop in Canadian sales accounted for merely about 2% of the 6.5% decline. Things are weak all over, yet management did stand behind existing year-end earnings guidance.

Merck (NYSE: MRK) expects earnings to grow as much as 11% in 2003, despite likely lower sales of some blockbuster drugs, including Zocor (cholesterol) and Vioxx (arthritis). Management said earnings could reach $3.40 to $3.47 per share in 2003, putting the $59 stock at 17 times those estimates. Generic drug sales have been eating sales of four Merck blockbusters that came off patent the last few years.

Bonjour, comment allez-vous? If you're France Telecom(NYSE: FTE), you'd answer, "I'm much better today, thank you." The French telecom giant took on 70 billion euro (about $70 billion) in debt during the boom, and chunks of this debt are soon coming due. Today, the firm announced a restructuring of its debt payment schedule; plans to cut 22,000 jobs (voluntarily or through early retirement); and a 9 billion euro infusion from the state. France Telecom is 55%-owned by the French government. The stock rose like bread, gaining 15%.

Millennium Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: MLNM) popped on word that it will submit its cancer drug candidate, Velcade, straight from Phase II trials to the Food and Drug Administration for approval. The drug was already granted fast-track status by the FDA. Velcade approval is first being sought for blood cancer treatment. More details will follow Monday.

Are you receiving Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)? Well, you're about to receive a "raise"! The annual, automatic cost-of-living adjustment for retiree benefit receivers will be 1.4% this year (again signaling that inflation remains low). The average retiree will be paid an extra... drum roll, please... $13 a month. (Hey, you could see the lame Bond movie twice this month on that.) Is retirement a concern of yours? If so, visit the Fool's retirement center.

And Finally...

Today on Check out our best stock ideas for Christmas, in Stocks 2003.... Jeff Fischer reveals his ideal stock prices for the likes of Intel, Pepsi, and more.... Matt Richey examines Cisco's CEO letters for its long-term strategy for success.... In Fool's School, the key to picking good mutual funds.... The Fool Community discusses in-store underwear models, in Hot Topics.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim